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  • Writing Behind a Curtain: Rebecca Harding Davis and Celebrity Reform
  • Arielle Zibrak (bio)

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Eminent Women, a composite image of twelve prominent suffragists, activists, writers, and artists seated indoors in a fictitious setting. Notman Photographic Co., 1884. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

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submerged renown

Though she published more than five hundred stories, essays, and novels in some of the most prominent national periodicals in the United States throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, almost nothing was known about Rebecca Harding Davis’s life by the public. Throughout her career, Davis would take extreme measures to prevent a public association between the different personae she would adopt as a writer and her biographical identity. She refused to be interviewed and photographed on multiple occasions.1 Only one photograph of Davis survives, taken before her career as a nationally published writer began.2

Recent scholarship has begun to examine the significance of nineteenth-century writers’ reluctance to be profiled or photographed. Michael Kearns’s study of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville makes the unlikely link between those two authors on the basis of their mutual disinterest in highly commercial publication and self-promotion. Both writers, Kearns points out, would not supply photographs upon request. For Kearns, this refusal is consonant with a desire [End Page 523] to separate the body of the author from the reception of the work as well as distaste for the seemingly de rigueur cultivation of an authorial brand. Most interestingly, Kearns identifies how the author photograph located the work in a distinct temporal moment: “for a writer with an eye toward immortality,” he writes, “Melville and Dickinson felt, photographs were a mark of failure.”3 For Davis, photographs not only tied an author to his or her own era, but also to a single, embodied existence that fixed boundaries on the interpretation of the texts. The image of a single author’s body would limit the varied professional identities Davis actively cultivated in print.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain recounts an exchange with Robert Louis Stevenson, wherein the two authors speculate about the role of fame in the production of literature. They decide that the prolific author who purposefully does not cultivate fame has secured his own success most firmly:

We struck out a new phrase—‘submerged renown’ . . . a surface reputation, however great, is always mortal, and always killable if you go at it right . . . but it is a different matter with the submerged reputation . . . their idol may be painted clay, up there at the surface, and fade and waste and crumble and blow away, there being much weather there; but down below he is gold and adamant and indestructible.4

Down below, Rebecca Harding Davis labored to get her writing into print and therefore into the hands and minds of readers without the threat of being discounted for her personal identity. In this essay, I argue that Davis’s evasion of “surface reputation,” read alongside the theme of the unacknowledged, subaltern artist in her fiction, demonstrates not only a different attitude towards celebrity authorship in the nineteenth century but also, more specifically, her refusal to adopt the rhetoric of a brand of reform fiction that I call [End Page 524] “celebrity reform,” one which distanced readers from the beneficiaries of reform as it elevated the author/narrator’s own role as celebrity author.

As an Appalachian woman writing for a mixed-gender, transatlantic audience in the second half of the nineteenth century, Davis’s work was ripe for generic marginalization to the realms of sentimentality or regionalism—a fate she clearly wished to avoid.5 In her essay “Women in Literature,” she writes a paean to American female writers who “give us pictures of the race in its decadence . . . with fidelity equal to any other photographs of dying men,” and praises them for having “omitted local peculiarities in their work,” making clear her views on popular generic traditions that rely heavily on social and political identity in order to connect to their public.6

Her decision to deny an eager public biographical details or images of her body was not merely a tactic to...


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pp. 522-556
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